“How can someone so young sing words so sad?” Morrissey once wondered, but having lived it, he already knew the answer. It’s the same question often asked of nineteen-year-old Archy Marshall, a.k.a. King Krule, a British singer/songwriter cut from a similar cloth of awkward charisma, emotive poise, and crisp lyrical insight. Marshall works in sonorous blacks and blues, crafting soulful, guitar-driven punk ballads that belie his tender years and capture the dichotomy of beauty and bleakness found growing up in urban London. He’s skinny, freckled, and unmercifully red-haired – the exact opposite of the battle-scarred hooligan you might expect to find behind his gruff, cockney-laced baritone. After listening to his debut LP 6 Feet Beneath the Moon and spying a pic of Marshall on Google, you’re apt to wonder if you’ve been Rick Rolled.
Marshall first drew the attention of critics in 2010 by releasing the grimy, beautiful ballad “Out Getting Ribs” under the name Zoo Kid, but he quickly traded in that moniker for the more aggressive King Krule. The latter still feels like an odd name for a scrawny, teenaged guitar whiz – until you realize it’s named after a Donkey Kong character, which is far closer to Marshall’s adolescent spirit than anyone realized. While his keen songwriting and musicianship are obvious, the most intriguing factor in Marshall’s success has arguably been his youth.
He’s a near prodigy – not in talent, technique, or vocal prowess, but in his ability to impart feeling. While Marshall’s dirge-laden music has been labeled “darkwave,” it’s most closely associated with a more basic genre – the blues – in essence, if not form. There’s something similar, and almost magical, to the way Marshall bears the weight of the world. He evokes an image of the young blues singer archetype, the child who can convey so much emotion at such a tender age. Tenacious, eloquent, and sweetly grim, Marshall proves you don’t need to be old to have suffered.
6 Feet Beneath the Moon is less an evolution of Marshall’s established sound than a honing of its singular elements – sinewy guitar leads, gravelly utterances, and damaged bits of percussion. Although miles from the dance floor, songs like “Border Line” and “A Lizard State” are ghostly extensions of reggae-infused, post-punk templates constructed by The Clash, PiL, and The Specials, plump with all of their discontent and devoid of their ebullience. While the constant threat of the drop pervades Marshall’s tunes, there’s surprisingly little bass. You wait for a pummeling that never comes – like dub music without the dub – and are instead left to tread water in Marshall’s melodic swamp of dissatisfaction and contempt. It’s a lesson that seems monotonous at first, but rewards over repeated listens.
As a child, Marshall exhibited numerous behavioral issues and suffered misdiagnoses of mental illness – a history that “Cementality” echoes through its ravaged, elegant plea: “Brain leave me be/ Can’t you see/ That these eyes are shut.” That sort of rich, poetic darkness lines the inside of 6 Feet Beneath the Moon like the obsidian, velvet cushioning of a casket. When Marshall’s rage spills out in a streak of profanities on “A Lizard State,” it feels more like a lyrical misstep than heartfelt expression. Marshall’s guttural, street thug delivery drips with such vitriol that the mere threat of what he might spit is more fearsome than the actual curses themselves. On the opening line to “Out Getting Ribs,” (one of the older, excellent Zoo Kid tracks that thankfully make up a third of 6 Feet Beneath the Moon) he’s far more calm and chilling: “Hate runs through my blood.”
Album highlight “Neptune Estate” might be King Krule’s most sublime moment yet. “Can’t you bear just one more night?” Marshall repeatedly implores over a lazy skanking guitar, wobbly piano, and groaning alto sax. The song exudes such coolness that it might float into the ether were it not for Marshall’s heavy, double-edged sword of an entreaty: “I wanna be with you / I wanna be used.” Another old Zoo Kid number, “Baby Blue,” remains achingly pretty. “My sandpaper sigh engraves a line/ In the rust of your tongue/ Girl, I could have been someone.” One of Marshall’s most appealing qualities is his ability to boil down universal ailments of malaise and ennui into a simmering reduction of personal plight. Marshall’s been way beyond “someone” status for years now, but without the affections of this girl that’s not how he sees it. It’s getting the girl that will elevate him to a state of worthiness. And to hear Marshall put it, he never gets the girl.
With 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, he’s got the rest of us, though. Marshall is a gifted storyteller who compacts shit-tons of emotional muck into impressionistic, inner-city soundscapes, then gives it all room to breath. He’s an incongruity upon incongruity – a kid this nerdy looking isn’t supposed to sound so wizened, feel so forlorn, and play with so much passion. But Marshall does, and we’re all witnesses. It’s a mystery whether King Krule’s sound has any path to evolve beyond its wiry, bare bones aesthetic and whether Marshall’s romantic, teenaged heart can grow to fill a body that is most assuredly expanding in stature and aging in years. But given Marshall’s remarkable history, it’s unwise to bet against him. He’s already let us in on his secret: “If you’re going through hell / you just keep going.”